Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Surviving Isaias

August sort of snuck up on us. We had our heads in the engine compartment replacing the inverter, batteries, and all related wiring when Hurricane Isaias was born.

North Carolina offered us a spectacular sunset after a brutal squall. Orion at anchor to our starboard.

Not being from hurricane country, we recognize that we have a lot to learn. So we fast-tracked our education by talking with everyone around us, and followed internet experts on such matters as spaghetti models and the war between the EURO and GFS models. I became an avid fan of Mike's Weather Page which digests all of the available data and shares thoughts on it daily.

The locals here in Oriental tell us the storms roll right up the ICW from Beaufort on a frighteningly frequent basis from August through late October. The marina has a policy of evacuating everyone when they deem it unsafe so they can secure the property. Typically when this is done there is a 12-hour notice to all tenants to get their boats out.

Lately we've been getting fierce afternoon winds from the South, which drains the harbor of available water, and Minerva has spent quite a few recent evenings in her slip scurfing the sea floor.

Chloe enjoying the post-squall sunset

The first spaghetti models of Isaias indicated he was most likely to hit the tip of Florida and turn into the Gulf of Mexico. And he wasn't expected to amount to much, he was moving too fast and the air was too dry for him to really gather any power. So we went about our business of disconnecting all the power to Minerva (again) and replacing the inverter and its relevant cabling. Then the hot dry air was just too wimpy to bounce him into the Gulf and he turned up the Florida coast. We paused our projects and watched carefully. He was downgraded to a tropical storm and expected to disintegrate before making it to Georgia so we resumed our work and removed and replaced all the batteries and routed them to the new inverter. Then he gained strength again and made clear his course was to bump his way up the East Coast. By then we were reassembled and ready to go... but where?

Isaias could have gone anywhere. Conventional wisdom says to never head East to escape a hurricane as they do tend to make sudden right turns and head out to sea. That left us with North or South. Since he was still in Florida and looked like he would bounce up the coast, South was out. What about North? Spaghetti models were all over the place. He could literally have landed anywhere. Most models agreed that he would even make it all the way up to Maine. So we waited and watched and looked for a place we could sail to and hide.

This is where I learned my first hurricane lesson. You often can't outrun them. We'd had good luck with this in the RV - mostly escaping the worst of the weather by paying attention and planning accordingly, but with a hurricane the more you pay attention the more frustrating it is to make a real plan. As the marina manager says "you can flip a coin and your guess would be just as good as any meteorologist".

Eventually the Cone of Uncertainty (yes this is a real term heard daily - at first I snickered and now I give it respect) narrowed in North Carolina. It became likely he would turn inland close to the South Carolina/North Carolina border, go up through Raleigh then take a right and come out in Virginia. So staying where we were in Oriental would actually be the best plan to avoid the worst of it.

Now on to our plan for Minerva. We knew we'd likely get bounced out of the marina, so we looked into the best places to hide locally. A few marinas in the area are good hurricane holes, one of which we knew Minerva could fit into because she lived there with her previous owner. The place is swanky with a matching price tag, and came with some rules such as a 5-night minimum, and we could not stay on the boat during the storm. No worries there; Loretta is closeby so we can break her out of RV storage and evacuate safely away. We made the reservation at the marina.

As we studied the weather models it looked like the outer edge of spin (South wind) would hit us at around 40 knots. We've done 35 knots on this boat before. Totally doable.

But the closer the storm came the more unhappy we were with our hurricane hole decision. One morning over coffee Lance blurted out "I don't want to leave her there unattended" and at the same time I said "let's stay at anchor, it'll be good practice for a real hurricane". Our eyes met across the salon table. The decision was made. I cancelled the marina reservation and Lance started removing sails.

The idea is to get everything off the top of the boat that creates "windage". Sails, canvas, biminis, dinghies; it's all got to go. Some of this equipment is heavy and/or bulky. The boaters of the marina worked together while the marina staff secured the charter vessels.

Minerva stripped of her sails

On Friday Minerva spent much of the day in the mud. On Saturday morning she was floating with a foot of water under the keel so we made the decision to escape early while we still could get out. We followed the marina staff to the South River where they settled the charter vessels. We scouted the whole river for a spot that was tight but not too tight, deep but not too wide, and had good cell coverage so we could stay in touch with weather updates. Ultimately we chose a spot between the charter vessels BSea'nU and Orion, with plenty of room between us on each side. We set our anchor and it held solidly. We paid out all 160' of chain and put it on a snubber to relieve pressure on the windlass. Later that afternoon we got the usual summer afternoon squall with a 35 knot wind and the anchor held well. The motion of the boat was comfortable. We were content that we had chosen well.

Chloe's shore taxi - SUP style

On Sunday a radio channel was established for all the South River Refugees and we used the air time to happily debate anchoring strategies. The general school of thought was to have two anchors out at a 45-60 degree angle. The current and wind had been conspiring all day to spin us in circles, we wondered about the tangled mess that would create. We discussed it and decided we were comfortable with our one anchor out, it had held so well in the sticky mud during the 35 knot squall, and we didn't want to risk dislodging it to set the second anchor. Besides, the previous owner told us it had held through 2 hurricanes and it had been "good enough to go all the way around the world" so it should be good enough for this little tropical storm. In the end the compromise we made was to prepare the backup anchor so it could be released with a single line removed, and 60' of chain and another 150' of triple braid anchor rode were attached, all of it was secured to the boat, flaked out on the deck and ready to go. With this setup if we started to drag all we had to do was remove one line and the second anchor would be in play.

I was a bundle of nervous energy and had all that waiting time on my hands, so I finally finished sorting the inside of the boat - settling those last few things that had moved aboard but had yet to find a place to live and were therefore always cluttering up the place. After that I grabbed a soft rag and a can of furniture polish and attacked the interior wood of the boat - there's a lot of it so it took a while.
Finally our wait was over.

Fresh shrimp - we cooked one pound and froze one pound

Monday afternoon began with a 36 knot squall. Fat and angry raindrops pelted sideways, the current kicked in the river and the wind blew the top off the water making visibility difficult. Then it just quit. The summer afternoon squalls of North Carolina are fierce but short-lived. The skies cleared and the water calmed, and we were approached by a shrimp boat, announced by the tornado of seabirds flapping and shrieking above it. Ten minutes, ten dollars and two pounds of shrimp later, Lance was boiling our peel-and-eat dinner while I happily stirred up an assortment of dips from ingredients unearthed in the cabinets. As the sun set we took notice of the boats on either side of us. To our port side about 1000' away, BSea'nU had an anchor light but no AIS signal. To our starboard side at just over 1200' away was Orion who had no anchor light but did have AIS so she showed up on our chartplotter as a potential collision hazard. Without broadcasting an AIS signal BSea'nU would not be noticed by the chartplotter as a potential hazard so we were relieved she had an anchor light. We checked and re-checked our backup anchor, chafe guard and snubber, primary anchor, tightened lines and discussed procedures for every variable we could think up. I set a couple of alarms on the chartplotter: an anchor drag alarm at 250' and a collision alarm at 1000'.

At 9:00 we were robbed of our sunset by thick dark skies which obscured the moon and stars and any available light. We were floating in an endlessly dark bubble accompanied only by the nearby boats' anchor lights which waved like fireflies above and beside us. Lance laid down for a quick nap and I took the first watch. At 10:00 the first real wind hit. The leading edge slapped us with a 38 knot smackdown blast then remained steady between 28 knots and 40. Angry rain pelted us sideways and conspired with the wind to combine the sea and sky into one indistinguishable frothy mess. The motion of the boat was easy, Minerva rides a storm like no other we've known. Since we had the best cell connection with access to regular weather updates and good wind readings on Minerva, we put out regular updates on our shared channel for the refugees further up the river.

Lance and I took turns keeping watch. There really isn't much to do on watch except keep an eye out for other boats dragging into us, occasionally check on the anchor and adjust chafe guards if necessary, and keep an eye out for any rigging lines that needed to be adjusted or re-secured. I chatted on the phone with family and friends while Lance devoured book after book on his Kindle. Surprisingly this did not make him green while the boat rolled.

Around 2am the wind shifted as expected and became notably fiercer. I was just about to come up on watch and Lance was reading, when the boat rolled hard to port and then rolled hard to starboard. I put my feet on the table to keep my balance and felt the shudder of the anchor release from the mud and then Minerva freely glided downstream. I ran to the chartplotter to confirm the sensation, and sure enough we were drifting towards Orion. While I watched in horror the anchor alarm went off followed quickly by the collision alarm. I shouted up to Lance while I was scaling the stairs - "we're dragging! 2nd anchor now!". Lance put the engine in gear to arrest the slide while I ran along the rail and started untying the line on the second anchor. Lance was right behind me and together we released it into the dark sea, set it quickly, and paid out scope. The motion of the boat immediately changed. We had arrested the drift, and overall the boat was happier with the new anchor. "Where's Orion - how close are we?" "I don't know I can't see her at all it's just black on black on black". We scurried back to the cockpit where Lance got behind the wheel again and took her out of gear so she could rest on the new anchor while I poked at the chartplotter. The distance between us and Orion was 732' and holding steady. We had dragged a total of about 200' before the new anchor set. Our plan had worked flawlessly and there was still plenty of space between us and the nearby boats. While we sat there slicked in rainwater and flopsweat we gawped at the wind measurements - 48.6 knots! Of course we'll never know the readings on those two slaps that dislodged the anchor.

Original anchorage, drag and second anchorage. The green circle is the new anchor alarm zone. Orion is the green boat off to the right, downwind.

As the morning light appeared, Isaias left us fitfully, like a petulant toddler determined to get in the last tantrum while being dragged out the door. Winds remained steady at 15 knots with occasional violent gusts to 30. As the sun fully formed the gusts eventually petered out, and we both collapsed and snored for a couple of hours.

We had survived our first Tropical Storm.
Our new latest-and-greatest technology anchor arrives tomorrow.

Nearby, just 156 miles away, the marina of Southport was not so lucky.